A reported 1 in 8 couples will deal with infertility — an often isolating experience that can leave partners coping in different ways and, at times, relationships fractured.
Lynn Polin, the founder and creator of Kindred Beginnings, a family-building support group, knows what it's like to experience infertility firsthand. After six years and 10 rounds of IVF, Polin and her husband are now the proud parents of two daughters.
"You can never be who you were before all this," Polin told Weekend TODAY co-anchor Kristen Welker. "It is going to forever change you."
Kindred Beginnings helps people who are experiencing infertility and trying to strengthen their relationships.
Welker also knows what it's like to navigate infertility. She and her husband "struggled through several years of infertility before finally welcoming my beautiful daughter Margot with the help of a surrogate" in 2021, she said.
Finding someone to talk with, the two moms said, can "be crucial."
“You can never be who you were before all this.
Lynn Poliin, founder and creator of kindred beginnings
"Our stories are all different but they're all big and they're all valid," Polin explained. "At the end of the day, we can connect with the feelings that are around it — the hardness of it; the challenges; the difficult decisions that need to be made."
Polin said that after she connected with a National Infertility Association support group, something inside her started to shift.
She realized she could create her own support group and founded Kindred Beginnings, where she is now a family building coach.
"I wanted to turn my pain into purpose and to support other people who were in the journey, because it's hard and it doesn't need to be so hard," Polin said. "If you surround yourself with community amazing things happen, and I wanted to be that community for other people.
Polin's husband, Drew, said he now sees firsthand how his wife's experiences are able to help and support others.
"Every day she gets to walk away making a pretty big impact with somebody."
'Family building can consume you'
During Kindred Beginnings group sessions, couples share the highs and lows of navigating infertility — both as individuals and as a couple.
Briana and Bill Helgestad have been trying to build their family for six years. Briana Helgestad says her husband is a "present, in-the-moment person," while she is the "Type A; the planner; the control freak who has to have everything figured all out."
"You can't do that in this process," Briana told TODAY.
The couple said that therapy helped them navigate infertility together, as well as "understanding that each person grieves in a different way."
"Some people really need to talk about it," Bill Helgestad told TODAY. "Some people want to keep it in."
Erin Epstein, who also attends group sessions, said she was "fearful of (infertility) just taking over and this just becoming everything."
Some people really need to talk about it. Some people want to keep it in.
Family building "can consume you," Polin said.
"It is all day, every day, on your mind," she added. She recommends couples set aside a specific time of the day to talk about infertility, then spend time focusing on something else.
Welker opened up about her own experience in a group session, sharing that because she and her husband were in their 40s when they were married they started trying to conceive immediately.
"Our whole marriage — all of those early days that are supposed to be the honeymoon phase — were about dealing with infertility," she said. "I just thought, 'This is never going to happen to me.'"
'The first step is to normalize it'
Dr. Lucky Sekhon, a fertility doctor practicing in New York, said treating patients is providing education and helping them to accept that they "won't have all the answers."
"The first step is to normalize it," Sekhon told TODAY. "The root of the pain is the lack of control and this idea that is engrained in all of us from education and achieving throughout your life: The amount of effort you put in should produce a result. This is one of those areas where that is not the case."
The number one thing she wants her patients to understand is that "this is not your fault."
One 2021 study published in the International Journal of Fertility and Sterility cites "infertility stigma" as "a phenomenon associated with various psychological and social tensions especially for women," often associated with shame and secrecy." The study found that both social and internalized stigma "threatens their psychosocial wellbeing and self-esteem."
"The emotional toll can never be understated," Sekhon added. "Infertility is like this invisible, chronic illness and there have been many studies that have shown the mental anguish and stress that people face as a result of it is equivalent to dealing with a cancer diagnosis. It's something that a lot of people suffer with in silence, which compounds the issue, because people feel embarrassed."
Cisgender men often have less support than their cisgender women partners. Studies have shown that men are less likely to seek support during an adverse life event, and male infertility is often associated with high levels of social stigma "due to the association of fertility with masculinity and sexual potency."
"Some men are not good with seeking out help and leaning on others for emotional support," Sekhon explained. "Oftentimes there's a lot of guilt because the male partner wants to do more."
Oftentimes there’s a lot of guilt because the male partner wants to do more.
Dr. Lucky Sekhon
Lindsay Gordon, who has experienced three pregnancy losses while trying to expand her family, told TODAY that "the guys don't talk about it."
"(My husband) doesn't know people in his world that have had trouble getting pregnant," she said. "I know a ton of women in my life."
'The grief will never go away'
Polin says she still copes with the trauma and grief of infertility, even as she is now a mother of two.
"The grief will never go away," she added. "It will always be with me."
One 2016 study published in BMJ journal found that a large number of people who experience pregnancy loss develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety. A 2020 study found that pregnancy loss can lead to long-term PTSD.
In the moments when Polin grieves, she "gives herself permission" and space to "sit with the yuck," knowing the moment will be temporary.
"The same is true for those good moments," she added. "You have to hold on to them because they, too, will pass."
Erin Epstein, who lost a daughter at 2 months old and had a pregnancy loss at 18 weeks, told TODAY that "nobody tells you about how hard this can be and how much people go through."
"Going through infertility to try and have another child — it's just another layer, because you're dealing with the grief of what you've lost and you're trying to expand your family," she said. "And you're still dealing with people who are saying things like 'it happened for a reason' ... No, there was never a reason why my son passed away in the womb and there was not a reason why my daughter passed away ... it's just a very strange space to be in."
This is something that stays with you.
Epstein says that even though she and her wife will one day bring home a healthy baby, it doesn't change what they've experienced.
"This is something that stays with you," she said. "The losses. The hopes; the joys; the downfalls. All of it."